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For more than a century, intercollegiate athletics has played a prominent role in the American higher education landscape. Truly a phenomenon of American higher education, college sports have been a vehicle of extracurricular development and provided opportunities to students who might not have had them otherwise. They have generated school spirit and demonstrated the ability to unite students, faculty, staff, alumni, and the general public. Additionally, college athletics have boosted the general public's interest in higher education in general. Large stadiums packed with enthusiastic crowds have brought attention to the campus life of colleges and universities (Thelin, 2004). On the flip side, critics point to how the commercialization and professionalization of college athletics have corrupted higher education. Colleges and universities sacrifice their integrity by compromising their academic standards so that they might achieve success on the playing field. For better or worse, the traditions of college athletics are undoubtedly embedded in American higher education.
Overview of the Book
Much of the energy devoted to college athletics, from both advocates and critics, is aimed at highly competitive spectator sports. They tend to focus on "big time" football or basketball at traditional powers such as the University of Texas or the University of Kentucky. In Reclaiming the Game, William Bowen and Sarah Levin concentrate on groups of institutions not commonly associated with corruption in college athletics. Their study examines college athletics at highly selective, academically prestigious institutions. The 33 elite colleges and universities researched in the book hail from the Ivy League, the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC), and the University Athletic Association. These include academic stalwarts such as Harvard University, Yale University, Williams College, Amherst College, Washington University in St. Louis, and the University of Chicago. One would think that such prestigious institutions would refuse to compromise their standards to pursue success in athletics, particularly when these colleges and universities are competing on relatively small stages. Bowen and Levin establish, however, that these institutions are not immune to the problems commonly associated with big-time college athletics.
Rationale for the Study Design
At first, it seems odd that the authors would focus their research on elite institutions that do not participate in big time college athletics. Bowen and Levin justify their choice of these elite institutions by explaining that athletics actually has a much larger impact on the smaller institutions. At NESCAC colleges, they found that 43% of male students and 32% of female students were athletes. In addition, about a quarter of the male student body (24%) and 17% of the female student body were recruited athletes. Though the percentages were a bit less for institutions in the Ivy League, these percentages are far greater than what you would find at the typical research university participating in big time college athletics. Additionally, these are prestigious institutions studied that do not offer athletic scholarships. They are supposed to epitomize the amateur ideal of intercollegiate athletics.
The book is a follow-up to The Game of Life, written by Bowen and James Shulman and published in 2001. While there are quite a few differences between the two books, the key difference in Reclaiming the Game is that the dataset the researchers used included a new variable that indicates whether the student-athlete was recruited or not. The recruitment of athletes is routinely viewed as a contributor to the corruption in college athletics. Dating back to the late 19th century, as long as athletics have been a significant part of college life, recruiting has been a controversial aspect of higher education. University of Chicago football coach Amos Alonzo Stagg would organize track meets to evaluate and recruit local athletes. Also controversial was his practice of taking students who had not yet completed their high school schoolwork and were unprepared for the rigors of college (Bowen, p. 43). This issue has persisted throughout college athletics, from the most prominent programs to the academically minded institutions examined in Reclaiming the Game. By having information about recruitment available, Bowen and Levin are able to differentiate recruited athletes, non-scholarship athletes (or "walk-ons"), and students who are not athletes.
Bowen and Levin found that, even at these institutions with elite academics and small time athletics, there are persistent problems that compromise the quality of education. First, recruited athletes have a substantial advantage in the admissions process. This issue was consistent across each group of colleges studied, but it was most pronounced at Ivy League institutions, where recruits were four times more likely to be admitted relative to comparable applicants. Recruited athletes had markedly lower standardized test scores than not only their classmates not participating in sports but also walk-on athletes. Second, once on campus, recruited athletes perform much worse academically than expected, based on their academic and demographic characteristics, and differences did not exist across factors such as race and socioeconomic status. More concerning is that the underperformance is not restricted to the athletic season. Underperformance persisted even in seasons and years during which they were not participating in athletics. At Ivy League institutions, the majority of recruited athletes fell in the bottom third of the class, accentuated by 81% of high-profile recruited athletes in the bottom third. NESCAC schools saw a similar pattern. Third, other groups that share certain characteristics with athletes do not demonstrate underperformance as athletes do. For instance, students with heavy time commitments, such as musicians, and those who receive admissions preference, such as legacies, do not perform worse than their peers. Similarly, underrepresented minority students, who typically receive an advantage in the admissions process, have shown steady improvement in narrowing the performance gap while the gap has widened for athletes. Fourth, the authors identified a separate culture associated with athletics on the campuses examined in the study, creating a divide negatively impacting the overall campus culture. Athletes frequently live with other athletes, spend most of their time together outside of their athletic responsibilities, and rarely participate in extracurricular activities outside of sports. They also tend to cluster in certain majors, specifically those in the social sciences and in business. Finally, Bowen and Levin found that schools in the University Athletic Association (Carnegie Mellon University, Emory University, University of Chicago, Washington University in St. Louis) were largely successful in avoiding the pitfalls associated with recruiting in intercollegiate athletics. This was the only group of schools in the study that had a pool of recruited athletes that resembled their non-athlete classmates based on their entering qualifications and academic performance while enrolled.
By Bowen's own admission, his previous book on college athletics, The Game of Life, provided insights but left readers with questions about how to address the problems raised in the book. Bowen and Levin, in Reclaiming the Game, explicitly set out to produce recommendations based on their findings. They identify nine recommendations for reform and five recommendations for implementation. Most notably, they suggest that widespread reform in the recruitment of athletes is necessary. This effort might include limiting the number of recruited athletes or establishing stronger admissions standards as well as improvement in the monitoring of the academic performance of recruited athletes once they are enrolled. Other notable suggestions included reducing the time commitment required of athletes, that athletic scholarships should not be given, and that some schools should consider eliminating football. Regarding the implementation of the recommendations, the authors, first and foremost, acknowledge that change must come about holistically and that a gradual or fragmented approach will not suffice. Additionally, the effort must be collaborative, involving the many parties that have a stake in college athletics. "'Going it alone' will almost surely lead to nothing but losing records and demoralization" (Bowen, p. 330). Bowen and Levin suggest that leadership in this movement should come from college and university presidents.
The Teaching-Learning Environment
Intercollegiate athletics is firmly entrenched in Bowen and Levin's concept of the teaching-learning environment. They acknowledge that it is an aspect of college life that is not going anywhere; nor should it, as it provides a rich extracurricular experience to many of those who participate in it. The authors correctly identify that the factors influencing college sports represent each realm of the teaching-learning environment: individual, organizational, and societal. The inputs in their analysis are both individual and organizational, including the individual academic and demographic characteristics of students as well as organizational characteristics such as recruitment. The belief that emerges is that there are underlying organizational and societal values that contribute to the underperformance of athletes, particularly those who are recruited. The authors suggest that the teaching-learning environment surrounding athletics would be improved with stronger leadership from college presidents and better coordination of academic and athletic goals. The principles of the University Athletic Association embody this vision: "First, athletics is integral to the overall educational process of the institution and should be conducted in a manner consistent with the institution's central academic mission. Second, student athletes shall be measured against the same standards as other students in admissions, financial aid, and academic programs. Third, the chief executive officer at each university shall be ultimately responsible for the control of athletics at each institution" (Bowen, p. 35). The founding principles of the NESCAC are similarly articulated, though it becomes clear through the admissions and achievement gaps established in the research that the conference falls short in meeting its goals.
One misstep of the study is the extent to which Bowen and Levin overlook the influences on college sports that come from off-campus. They do acknowledge the influence of alumni and report that there is quite a bit of variation by campus and by sport (Bowen, p. 190). I suspect that further exploration would have been revealing. Throughout the book, Bowen and Levin highlight the intense demands on coaches to field winning teams. It is unlikely that the pressure to win is coming primarily from presidents and athletic directors, who frequently recognize the problems that Bowen and Levin reveal. If presidents and athletic directors are cognizant of the problems associated with the recruitment of athletes, shouldn't they be satisfied with employing coaches that they know to be good educators rather than those who have a skill for identifying talented athletes and marketing the school to them? The pressure to win at all costs must be coming from somewhere else. Alumni, in the form of donations, are probably the only other group with the power to exert such pressure on winning. Even at a small school like Williams College, if you want to keep your alumni happy, the football team needs to beat Amherst. Since the authors claimed that there was quite a bit of variation, it would have been enlightening to see the extent to which alumni pressure influences the teaching-learning environment.
Another problem with Bowen and Levin's study is that the outcomes they use are narrowly defined. Appropriately, they place great emphasis on traditional academic outcomes such as grade point average and academic honors. However, they merely pay lip service to other collegiate outcomes, particularly those outside of the classroom. Bowen and Levin point to the large percentage of athletes that fell into the bottom third of the class. Had they been looking at candidates in the upcoming presidential election of 2004, they would have found that the Democratic nominee, John Kerry, and the Republican nominee and incumbent president, George W. Bush, shared the same distinction at institutions covered in Reclaiming the Game (AP, 2005). Students can direct their energies in many different ways and often those with lower grades emerge having achieved outcomes that are not traditionally measured. While the authors establish that, on average, athletes perform worse academically relative to their peers, there are other outcomes that are positively associated with participation in college sports. Ryan (1989) found a positive relationship between participation in college athletics and overall satisfaction with the college experience, motivation to earn a degree, and the development of interpersonal skills and leadership abilities. There is so much focus in the book on how athletes underperform relative to their peers. Yet, the authors are remiss in celebrating the positive student outcomes associated with participation in college sports. It would have been convincing had the authors combated the issue of underperformance while acknowledging the need to preserve the positive aspects of participation in intercollegiate athletics. While academic outcomes like grade point average are useful and necessary metrics for evaluating student performance, the study comes up short due to its negligence of a broader set of student outcomes.
Understanding the Phenomenon
Bowen and Levin produce compelling empirical evidence that college athletes, especially recruited athletes, enter with weaker academic credentials than their peers and underperform in the classroom while enrolled. Controlling for factors such as academic preparation and demographics, the authors demonstrate that athletes perform worse than expected based on their characteristics. They directly attribute this shortfall to participation in college sports and recruitment to the institution as an athlete. There are implicit structural faults and failings in the value systems associated with intercollegiate athletics. The study is merely satisfied in acknowledging that these problems are associated with the underperformance of athletes rather than striving to explain how these issues contribute to the performance gap between athletes and non-athletes. It fails to answer the question, "What is it about being a recruited athlete that causes academic performance to be worse than non-athletes?" To answer this question, perhaps a qualitative approach would be more revealing than the quantitative methods employed by Bowen and Levin. It would be enlightening to get the perspectives of students on how they view themselves as students and as athletes. It is possible that athletes and non-athletes have different priorities and goals, that they define their success in college in distinct ways. Getting students to articulate their perspectives is a critical part of understanding the phenomenon. Otherwise, the conclusions are based largely upon assumptions.
One of the key findings of the study is that institutions in the University Athletic Association, for the most part, avoided the problems that the other colleges and universities in the study faced. The admissions and performance gaps experienced at other institutions are not present at University Athletic Association schools. The balance of academics and athletics appears to be quite close to the model of the teaching-learning environment envisioned by Bowen and Levin. The examination of the reasons for the conference's success is unfortunately limited. Though the conference was less than two decades old at the time of the study, the authors squandered an opportunity to examine thoroughly the reasons for the conference's success and make an attempt to apply the practices to other conferences.
A Convincing Argument
I have focused on the shortcomings of the book, but it should be acknowledged that Bowen and Levin call attention to real problems facing colleges and universities. The authors construct a convincing argument that the academic underperformance of college athletes, particularly those who were recruited, is a significant problem facing higher education. After all, if this phenomenon exists at such academically elite institutions competing at a relatively low level of competition, surely the same problems are exacerbated at the colleges and universities whose football and basketball teams are regularly on television and generate millions of dollars. The pressure to recruit and field successful teams has accelerated and the problems associated with this phenomenon are only going to get worse if there is not a collaborative effort to reform the system.
The Current Athletics Landscape
In the years since the publication of Reclaiming the Game, it appears as if the problems plaguing college athletics have only been exacerbated. Much attention has been devoted to how major college athletics has grown to be out of control. The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics recently released its research report on the costs and financing of major college athletics. The report was based on quantitative and qualitative research derived from presidents of universities that compete at the highest level of NCAA football, the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). The commission's findings were alarming. Presidents felt that they do not have sufficient power to change athletics on their own campuses, never mind the FBS as a whole. Factors such as multi-million dollar television contracts and an athletics arms race in the form of escalating coaches' salaries and facilities upgrades have diminished the power of academic leaders on campuses. There were mixed feelings about whether the current model of spending on athletics was sustainable. While the need for reform was widely acknowledged, there was skepticism whether university presidents had the power to make reforms a reality. Meanwhile, the popular media has illuminated the misplaced priorities of colleges and universities. Despite budget cuts of nearly $150 million and a state system in serious financial trouble, the University of California is moving ahead with its $430 million upgrade to its Memorial Stadium (USA Today, 2009). Another phenomenon that has been profiled is the growing practice of recruiting athletes to college even before they have enrolled in high school. In 2007, Time Magazine profiled boys and girls (I hesitate to use even the terms "young men" and "young women) who had scholarship offers to play Division I basketball prior to taking a high school course or playing in a high school game. The evidence is clear that, on many campuses, academics is secondary to athletics. From the small-time programs profiled by Bowen and Levin to the big-time programs frequently scrutinized by major media, intercollegiate athletics is engaged in an arms race and it is unclear at what point and how it will stop. Without major form, it appears unlikely to slow any time soon.
In full disclosure, I am a diehard fan of college sports. I enjoy the impassioned competition of March Madness and the pageantry of college football Saturdays in the fall. I recognize the importance of intercollegiate athletics to American higher education and the American social fabric, in general. I have defended it against the criticisms it frequently faces. Despite this admitted bias, I cannot deny that Bowen and Levin produce findings that are alarming and should be addressed. I will not go as far as saying that leaders should pursue the wholesale reforms that the authors recommend. The authors present some fairly radical reforms that seem premature based on the findings of the study. There could be costs to these reforms that are not sufficiently evaluated in the book. Specifically, these costs relate to extracurricular student outcomes that the authors largely overlook in their analysis. There is an assumption that the reforms will fix some of the problems that are identified but there is not an examination of what the costs might be. The book does an excellent job of demonstrating that a problem exists. Where it unfortunately falls short, though, is explaining why the problem exists and providing convincing evidence that the reforms they propose are effective solutions.